(Steve Russell, Toronto Star)
For the second straight season, ESPN has named the Toronto Maple Leafs as the worst franchise in North American professional sports. The Maple Leafs finished 122nd out of 122 teams and ranked near the bottom in every single fan experience category.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have back-to-back titles for the first time since 1964. The only problem is the title is possibly the least admirable in all of professional sports.
For the second consecutive year, ESPN’s Ultimate Standings have named the Maple Leafs as the worst franchise in all of North American professional sports. That’s right, no team in the NHL, NBA, NFL or MLB is worse, according to ESPN. That includes the financially struggling Arizona Coyotes, the NFL’s seemingly hopeless Jacksonville Jaguars and the MLB’s basement-dwelling Philadelphia Phillies. Not even the NBA’s awful New York Knicks, who finished with only 17 wins in 2014-15, rank lower.
“The hapless, entitled Leafs have owned last place in this ranking in three of the past four years,” writes ESPN’s Doug McIntyre. “No franchise in the four major sports leagues charges more for delivering less ($139 total cost per game for a club that has failed to qualify for the playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons).”
In order to get the rankings, ESPN used four steps, including surveying fans on what they get back for their investment of time and money, what their in-arena/stadium experience is, ranked in-game performance of teams and a weighted score based on a national poll of what fans want from a sports experience. When it all shook out, the Maple Leafs found themselves at the very bottom.
One of the most harrowing rankings for Toronto faithful might be “Title Track,” in which Toronto ranked 120th out of the 122 ranked teams. ESPN’s Title Track ranking was the championships, or expected titles, expected within the lifetime of a fan. To rank 120th is to say if you’re cheering for the Maple Leafs today, don’t expect to see them hoist the Stanley Cup in your life. That’s a rather bleak outlook from ESPN, but fans born in 1968 might tend to agree with the sports outlet’s ranking.
What really hurts the Maple Leafs, though, is affordability and providing fans with a good return on investment.
“No matter how much the Maple Leafs improve on the ice, their obscene average ticket prices ($113.66, higher than every pro team except the New England Patriots, New York Giants and New York Knicks, and $30 more than the second-most expensive hockey ticket) will prevent them from ever being in the top third of our Ultimate Standings,” writes McIntyre. “The dead-last finish in affordability, bang for the buck and fan relations -- because why should management care when every game sells out, no matter what? -- are functions of hockey's mystical hold on Southern Ontario.”
Likewise, ESPN didn’t have much nice to say about the Maple Leafs roster, either. The trade of Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins is pointed out, but the fan rankings of the roster are vicious, as McIntyre writes the Maple Leafs’ roster “finished last in hockey in likability, effort and professionalism in our voting.”
One big boost, however, came in the coaching category. In 2014, the Maple Leafs were ranked 113th in coaching with Randy Carlyle at the helm. This season, they’ve seen a significant jump up the rankings, landing in 38th with Mike Babcock patrolling the bench. Whether that is converted to on-ice wins is yet to be seen, but for now it’s the lone bright spot on an otherwise terrible finish in ESPN’s rankings.
Things can only go up from here, though. Or, at least, we think so. Because if they don’t, the Maple Leafs could be staring down the barrel of a third-straight last-place finish in ESPN’s Ultimate Rankings. That’s not exactly the type of title the team is after.
As for the top team in the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning took that crown. In the 10 categories offered by ESPN, the Lightning ranked inside the top-10 in eight, including affordability (2), fan relations (2) and stadium experience (3). In last year's rankings, ESPN had the Lightning in sixth spot, behind the Anaheim Ducks (second) and Los Angeles Kings (fifth) as best team in the NHL.